THE STORY – Since giving up his life as a government assassin, Robert McCall finds solace in serving justice on behalf of the oppressed. Now living in Southern Italy, he soon discovers his new friends are under the control of local crime bosses. As events turn deadly, McCall becomes their protector by taking on the mafia.
THE CAST – Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, David Denman, Sonia Ammar & Remo Girone
THE TEAM – Antoine Fuqua (Director) & Richard Wenk (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
Audiences love “The Equalizer.” Antoine Fuqua’s 2014 film, a loose adaptation of the 1980s TV series starring Denzel Washington as former Marine and former DIA officer Robert McCall, who gets pulled back into the business just when he thought he was out in order to help a teenage prostitute hide from the Russian mafia, was a big hit, and its 2018 sequel was just as big. And so here we are, almost ten years after the first film hit theaters, with “The Equalizer 3” serving as proof that you can build a successful franchise for adults in today’s world without basing it on an older film or comic book franchise (one could even argue for it as a completely original franchise, given that the TV series on which it was based only barely cracked the top 40 in one of its four seasons, giving it comparatively low name recognition). This is especially good news for Fuqua, who has said since the first film was released that he wants to continue the franchise as long as the audience and Washington want it, as he finds the character interesting. Coming to this third film in the series first, it’s certainly nice that no prior knowledge of the previous films is required in order to understand the story, but you may be forgiven for not finding McCall as interesting as Fuqua does.
The film opens with a walk through a grisly murder scene at a vineyard in Sicily. Dead body after dead body – each killed in brutal, bloody fashion – leads us to a room where McCall sits flanked by two guards. After quickly dispatching them and their boss in a similarly brutal, bloody fashion, he makes it out, but not without taking a bullet in his lower back. Gio (Eugenio Mastrandrea), a local mainland policeman, finds him in his car on the side of the road and takes him to his town doctor (Remo Girone), who patches McCall up and houses him while he recuperates. Once he’s well enough to walk around, McCall finds himself charmed by the village and its inhabitants, and when he notices the presence of the mafia in town, he takes it upon himself to rid the town of this scourge.
All this sounds quite a bit more interesting than it actually is, as Richard Wenk’s screenplay has everything play out in a straightforward fashion, saving any real intrigue for the film’s final major setpiece. Make no mistake; there’s still plenty of shock value to be found here, especially when it comes to the violence on display, which often feels almost like a game of one-upmanship with the audience – oh sure, you’ve seen a guy get stabbed in the eye before, but have you seen someone get stabbed in the eye with a gun? That then shoots the person standing behind him? However, while that can make for an invigorating momentary rush, the film’s violent setpieces are few and far between, leaving the film feeling dull for long stretches. If there was anything of interest happening with the plot, or even anything that went slightly differently than you would expect, then the film as a whole might feel more exciting. Unfortunately, everything happens more or less exactly as you would expect, sapping the movie of all the energy its violent setpieces have. It’s almost as though what Fuqua really finds interesting about the character is how he kills people, not how he feels about it, emphasized by the film’s sole stylistic flourish, a flashback to the killings from the opening scene that we watch from McCall’s point of view.
Thankfully, Denzel Washington is still the ace up this series’s sleeve. At first, his mumbling and leaden movements feel like the actor aging badly on camera, but as the film goes on, it becomes clear that this is all part of the character, as he slowly lightens up the more comfortable he becomes in the village. That’s when the actor finally lets loose with his movie star charm, and it is downright irresistible. Reuniting with his “Man on Fire” costar Dakota Fanning (playing a government agent investigating the vineyard from the opening scene on McCall’s anonymous tip) after almost two decades, Washington is pure charisma, and Fanning gives back as much as her thinly-written character allows. When called on to be menacing, Washington’s underplaying proves even more potent, his low speaking volume curdling into a sneer even as he stays as cool as a cucumber. Even though the script goes through the same few beats in scene after scene, Washington is a canny enough performer to offer variations on a theme, however slight, that keep us engaged in what’s happening, but even he can’t overcome the script completely.
Back to that POV flashback for a moment. It occurs as McCall is recovering from his injury, a look inside his head as he tries to reconcile within himself whether he is a good or bad person. Washington gives the moment his all, but the script never engages with this conflict in any meaningful way, a missed opportunity to provide Washington with a role worthy of his considerable talent as a dramatic actor. But “The Equalizer” series has always been about blunt force – that of Washington’s star persona in front of the camera and that of Fuqua’s action direction behind it, and that is still the case with this third installment. It’s a pity this second sequel doesn’t give us much more than that, but it does feel like fans of the series will get precisely what they paid for.